Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Jack Ma, then executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, looks up during a panel discussion in Beijing on March 19, 2016.

Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

China’s best-known entrepreneur, e-commerce billionaire Jack Ma, made his fortune by taking big risks.

The former English teacher founded Alibaba Group in 1999, when China had few internet users. Online payments service Alipay launched five years later, before regulators said such businesses would be allowed. Both long shots grew to dominate their industries.

Mr. Ma’s latest gambit backfired after he called regulators too conservative in an Oct. 24 speech and urged them to be more innovative. They halted the impending stock market debut of Ant Group, an online finance platform that grew out of Alipay. Alibaba’s share price sank, possibly costing Mr. Ma his status as China’s richest tycoon.

Story continues below advertisement

Since then, the normally voluble Mr. Ma has stayed out of the public eye, cancelled a TV appearance and avoided social media. That has prompted a flurry of speculation about what might happen to Mr. Ma, China’s biggest global business celebrity and a symbol of its tech boom.

“The Jack Ma Era is ended,” wrote a blogger under the name Yueyue Talks Technology. “It’s too late to say goodbye.”

Spokespeople for Alibaba and Ant didn’t respond to questions about why Mr. Ma hasn’t appeared in public.

Some see Mr. Ma’s travails as a warning from the ruling Communist Party that even a wildly successful entrepreneur can’t publicly defy regulators. But finance experts said President Xi Jinping’s government already was uneasy about Alibaba’s dominance in retailing. As for Ant, regulators worried it might add to financial risks seen by the ruling party as one of the biggest threats to China’s economic growth.

Shaun Rein, a business consultant in Shanghai who said he meets Alibaba managers and people who know Mr. Ma, said none of them reports the billionaire is in legal trouble.

“They spanked him. He’s learned his lesson, and that’s why he’s been quiet for the past two months,” said Mr. Rein, founder of China Market Research Group. “Some of his friends told me they can’t believe how stupid he was.”

Mr. Ma, 56, stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019 but is part of the Alibaba Partnership, a 36-member group with the right to nominate a majority of its board of directors. He is one of the biggest shareholders.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Ma irked regulators with the speech at a business conference in Shanghai attended by some of the regulators he was criticizing. Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan also was in the audience.

Mr. Ma complained regulators had an antique “pawnshop mentality” and were hampering innovation, according to Chinese media. He appealed to them to support unconventional approaches to make it easier for entrepreneurs and young people to borrow.

“The race tomorrow will be a race of innovation, not regulatory capabilities,” Mr. Ma said, according to the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily.

That clashed with the ruling party’s marathon campaign to reduce surging debt that has prompted fears about a possible financial crisis and led international rating agencies to cut Beijing’s credit rating for government borrowing. At the same event in Shanghai, Mr. Wang warned new technologies improve efficiency but “amplified financial risks,” according to the business magazine Caixin.

On Nov. 3, regulators suspended Ant’s market debut. It would have been 2020′s biggest, raising some US$37-billion.

Alibaba’s CEO later praised regulators in a possible attempt to repair relations. But Mr. Ma said nothing. The last posting on his Sina Weibo social-media account is dated Oct. 17.

Story continues below advertisement

Alibaba Group shares traded in Hong Kong have fallen 19 per cent since October. Mr. Ma’s fortune, which peaked earlier above US$60-billion, fell by more than US$10-billion.

Alibaba, headquartered in Mr. Ma’s hometown of Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, was founded to connect Chinese exporters with Western retailers. The company has expanded into online consumer retailing, entertainment and other areas.

Its finance arm, Yu’ebao, launched in 2013, attracted millions of customers in a market dominated by state-owned banks that focus on serving government industries. By 2017, Yu’ebao was the world’s biggest money market fund with 1.2 trillion yuan ($235-billion) in assets, competing with state banks for deposits.

Ant Group has been ordered to overhaul its business before its market debut can go ahead.

The central bank said Dec. 28 it told Ant to focus on its online payments business. That suggested the company might be required to scale back its ambitions and new initiatives, which would hurt its appeal to investors.

Mr. Ma and Alibaba aren’t regulators’ only tech industry targets.

Story continues below advertisement

The ruling party has declared anti-monopoly enforcement, especially in online industries, a priority.

Executives of Alibaba and five other tech giants including Tencent, operator of the WeChat messaging service, and online retailer JD.com were warned by regulators last month not to try to keep new competitors out of their markets, according to the government.

Stock traders in Hong Kong talk about Mr. Ma’s disappearance from social media but doubt Alibaba or Ant will be affected, said Kenny Wen of securities firm Everbright Sun Hung Kai.

“The key point that will affect how these companies develop is the latest anti-trust regulations,” said Mr. Wen. “Jack Ma has already stepped down from management, and this does not affect the operation of the company.”

The anti-monopoly investigation of Alibaba announced in December targets its policy that prohibits vendors and other business partners from dealing with its competitors.

Foreign investors were rattled, but Chinese businesspeople are “quite happy” with the crackdown, said Mr. Rein.

Story continues below advertisement

“A lot of people saw Alibaba and Tencent as monopolies and stifling competition,” he said.

Mr. Ma’s high profile is unusual in a society where folk wisdom warns, “a man fears getting famous like a pig fears getting fat.” Others such as Tencent founder Ma Huateng, who is no relation to Jack Ma, are known for avoiding reporters and public appearances.

Jack Ma dresses up in a leather jacket, sunglasses and wig to perform rock songs at Alibaba’s annual employee festival in a Hangzhou.

Mr. Ma, who jokes that his oversize head and angular features make him look like the title character in E.T. the Extraterrestrial, has acted as an informal business envoy abroad. He met President Donald Trump in January, 2017, and promised to create U.S. jobs.

Mr. Ma’s success has earned him a reputation as being politically well-connected. But this isn’t the first time Alibaba has been hurt by its outspokenness.

In 2015, then-deputy chairman Joe Tsai criticized a government report that said Alibaba failed to keep counterfeits off its sales platforms. The government responded by attacking Alibaba in state media and publicizing complaints about fake and shoddy goods.

Story continues below advertisement

Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies